It’s 2016, America. A time of vigilant political correction, when we can look at the follies of our past faux pas and indict our recent ancestors for insensitivity. That’s the game, right? Look at the past and say, ‘no.’ The past is racist, the time for reform is now. Yes? Well, use this lens to judge CMU’s interpretation of The Playboy of the Western World; an audacious performance complete with practiced West-Irish accents and a beautifully composed direction. But, is it offensive?
Has this play always been offensive? Is that the point?
It’s pretty much impossible to survey the immediate picture of the play without looking at it’s storied past. Like the “Rites of Spring”, an experiment in showing a crude, natural, existential question that causes crowds to riot: does art have to be feel-good? Can it be vulgar and nasty? Even if it’s honest?
Here we see the story of insanely Irish stereotypes: a play littered with the Irish constantly drunk, women swooning over murderers and an almost apostate inversion of Catholic identity. And according to the author, all of this done to “portray the western Irish for who they were: raw, unabashed, and slightly backwards in their thinking.”
The stuff is honest. That’s the beauty of the play, the reason the program spends 4 of its 5 pages qualifying the play. To look at the world through “rose-colored glasses”, be it the noble wiseness of the American Indian or the resplendent neatness of a stereotyped Orientalism; it is a disservice to class a people through the fog of romanticizing them, despite the generosity of these stereotypes being positive.
A play that is canonized because it incited a conservative culture with a romantic view of its brethren to be toppled by the honesty of the true vulgarity of the culture….well, that’s just fascinating. It’s fascinating to lift up the porcelain and see what’s inside. Hell, it’s honest.
And perhaps the qualifying, discerning nature of PC culture has something to learn? If this play is relevant, maybe there’s something to be observed in its course of rejection leading to canon…
But enough diatribe. Let’s talk performance.
The choice to use authentic dialect was reason to be skeptical. But director Don Wadsworth’s dialect coaching was rich and consistent. Invoking a century-old manner of speech from across the ocean is a feat. CMU’s actors did a tremendous job of living up to the challenge. And this play is a challenge in a number of ways: from the colloquial banter and the poesy of Irish-speak, as well as the esoteric jokes and all over the hurdle of speaking with the ol’ brogue.
I feel that a big distraction in an “dialect” show is error-watching. A compliment I’d like to give to the entire ensemble is that the dialects were so captivating, it was possible by after the first 20 minutes of the play to be legitimately drawn into the plot. This may sound like a banal criticism, but hey, bad dialects can definitely screw up the experience.
Particular credit should be given to leads McKenna Slone’s Pegeen and Joe Essig’s Christopher Mahon. A gigantic onslaught of West-Irish poesy was put upon their plate, and they lapped through it with the wild eloquence needed for the roles. I appreciated Essig’s ability to spit while he talked and Slone’s tangle-haired, strong-eyed gleaming incisiveness. She’s fierce: a brunt necessity for the role. They created an air of gumption that cut through the eloquence one would expect for those projecting on stage. Like I’ve said before, this play is vulgar. Vulgar in the sense that it captivates various parts of our animal brains to be entertained by the drunk, obnoxious and tittering fools that create great stories. They did a compelling job of moving like pub animals, reminding me of the dangerous but charming anecdote-worthy fiends which you can still find at low-lit bars to this day, in this country, that country, and presumably everywhere.
I’d like to give Lilli Kay’s Widow Quin a nod for assuming the dialect carefully drawn and still remaining eloquent enough to understand the words. And hell, to the spinster-trio of Kennedy McMann, Diyar Eyuboglu and Eleanor Pearson. Though bit parts, they upheld a well-managed characterization that fit the roles and created distinct identities from a limited scope of lines.
I want to also give credit to Petr Favazza, Nathan Salstone and Dylan Bright for executing their characters’ physical comedy with bite. Salstone plays a coward with the perfect amount of sheepish chagrin, which moves well against someone like Favazza’s boastful drunk speech-giver. Within the entire ensemble, every piece is a bit of the picaresque. I would call it satire if it wasn’t intended to be an honest, unabashed rendition. Ha.
A particularly sharp bit of direction comes with a mule-race which was tactfully choreographed. Credit should be given to Timiki Salinas’ Jimmy and Will Brosnahan’s Philly as well as Kay in this scene. A palpable performance as we’re watching their faces watch the race; and yet, the excitement is right there vicariously lain throughout the audience. I’ve never seen that kind of transference with an objectively lame performance: as if their watching of a race invoked the feeling of the race to us. It helps that it was well-directed, carefully choreographed so they all spun on the same arm of the clock, same movements capturing the movement of said race. It was legitimately exciting, and we’re merely watching actors move their heads on-stage (though the bit of noise coming from the outside might have helped).
At the risk of sounding redundant, I’ll say again: the entire ensemble executed their roles and dialects tremendously. A+. The cast had a vehicular amount of energy and inflection, despite the challenges of the brogue, and could be understood quite well and captivated within caricature the seemingly nasty themes of the play. It was like a who’s who of the despicable: the coward, the murderer, various idiots, various drunks and a few fools. We fall into their arc of gullibility and violence and we fall out of it as a single day passes with enough excitement to create new love, new hopes and new vengeance.
Is this the caricature of the West-Irish identity that J.M. Synge wanted to expose to the world: that common-folks are fools with poetic banter and impulsive decisions? Perhaps it is his own personality vicariously working through his protagonist, meeting his betrayal of this honest statement with the indictment: “if it’s a poor thing to be lonesome, it’s worse maybe to go mixing with the fools of earth.”
Though would we respect his play today if it hadn’t been rejected by the very people he was trying to impress; i.e. the posh east-Irish crowd of the Abbey Theatre? Political correctness only goes so far as the fiction it wants to create. Reality is scary and dumb, true and beautiful. It probably needs to be rejected before the acceptance of cruel, ugly nature transcends stereotype for truth, noble or ig-.
Or as his titular character, the Playboy of the Western World himself, says in his own rejection of the West Irish people he was both enchanted and rejected by: “Ten thousand blessings upon all that’s here, for you’ve turned me a likely gaffer in the end of all, the way I’ll go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the dawning of the judgment day.”
Perhaps, after a frenzy, we can respect the better ill-natured angels of our character.
And “…by the will of God, we’ll have peace now for our drinks.”
Special thanks to the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama for complimentary press tickets.
The Playboy of the Western World runs at Philip Chosky Theater through October 15th. For tickets and more information, click here.